Ron Howard talks about the challenges and rewards of returning to independent film-making with Formula 1 character study Rush. He also tells Wendy Mitchell about the adventure of his new film Heart Of The Sea.

Ron Howard has been acting since he was four and directing since 1977. So how could he come up with a new challenge? How about making his first independent film in 25 years, Formula 1 story Rush?

Getting away from the studio system was an invigorating experience for the veteran film-maker. “I enjoy working outside the US for the adventure of it, for the personal growth,” he told Screen in early December.

“I didn’t bring my US crew with me beyond the editors, Dan Hanley and Mike Hill. I accepted the fact we were making an independent movie out of the UK and in co-production with Germany. I was the outsider. I was ready to aesthetically embrace what that means, and I think it was influential on the film.”

It wasn’t just the structure that was different, Rush marks a different kind of storytelling for Howard - delving into the rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 season.

“Generally, I tend to make movies that are a little more about groups or units working together - families, astronauts and so on - and this was much edgier and much more singular,” he says. “This was about lone wolves and exploring a fascinating sport. But more than anything else, it offers an insight into the psyches of these two compelling and unusual characters.”

Structure for suspense

Howard had previously worked with screenwriter Peter Morgan on Frost/Nixon in 2008. “Peter built everything around the facts and found an interesting way to structure the movie so that it would reflect the truth and yet also offer suspense and insight into the characters. He presents characters in a way that is emotional but unsentimental.”

The two leading men, Daniel Brühl as the uptight Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as the hedonistic Hunt, were pivotal in setting the tone. “Daniel was going to be the kind of fearless, dedicated talent that would tackle this without vanity. It’s a tremendous performance.” (Brühl was nominated for best supporting actor at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild awards and the Baftas).

As for Hemsworth, Howard says: “I wasn’t sure if he’d have this darker side for Hunt, that Raging Bull element. I knew he had the charm and the sexuality, but he also proved he had the darker side.”

The director and actors did research that aided the film’s authenticity. “The script was strong, but we then went through an intensive secondary wave of research to understand the world, the sport and to deepen our sense of these characters. We wanted to find the nuance that surprised us, the unexpected shadings,” says Howard.

The other key performers are the cars. “It was a big technical challenge, and we were on an indie budget, not a studio budget,” Howard adds of the reported $50m budget.

DoP Anthony Dod Mantle was key to the process. He told Screen: “What we were shooting had to marry with the archive so the footage didn’t ‘bump’. Aesthetically, I didn’t want it to bump - just like I didn’t want the cars to bump.”

Poring over countless hours of archive “subconsciously helped to develop the shooting palette”.

The editing process was also crucial in building the excitement of the races seen on screen - Hanley and Hill started their work pre-shoot by taking archival footage and editing together versions of key races, a technique they had done with boxing for Cinderella Man and flight scenes for Apollo 13.

“I wanted to differentiate the races and make them more compelling and intense,” says Howard. “If you can carry the emotion of the guys onto the races on the track, that would help differentiate each race. They had to look, feel, sound, unfold in slightly different ways. That influenced anything from the lens choices, the colours, through to the ultimate editing and the sound.”

Howard is also credited as one of the producers on Rush, alongside Revolution Films’ Andrew Eaton, Working Title’s Eric Fellner, Cross Creek’s Brian Oliver, writer Peter Morgan and producer Brian Grazer. The film is a production of Exclusive, Revolution, Working Title, Imagine, Relativity and Cross Creek Pictures.

The film premiered as a gala presentation in Toronto and then launched theatrically on September 13, with a big push from StudioCanal. Universal released it in the US. The film’s worldwide gross stands at more than $90m. It earned four Bafta nominations: best British film, supporting actor (Brühl), editing and sound.

Out to sea

After surviving the racetrack, Howard is now tackling the oceans with Heart Of The Sea. Set in the winter of 1820, it tells the true story of the New England whaling ship Essex being shipwrecked by a whale - the real-life maritime disaster that inspired Moby Dick. Howard’s film, however, is not just about the whale - it also concentrates on the crew’s fight for survival after the tragedy.

“Moby Dick is fiction but it deals with the psychological ramifications of man versus the elements,” Howard says. “This film is about the emotional cost of that drive to hunt and kill whales. It’s a very modern industrial look at the whaling industry of that time, which was the energy industry.”

Howard adds: “This takes a very clear-eyed, hard, industrial look at that world. It’s not a romanticised approach to the subject. It’s a very moving, dramatic, inspiring and, in some places, tragic survival story.”

The film is being shot in the UK - at Warner Bros Studios Leavesden - and on location in the Canary Islands. The script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Charles Leavitt is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling novel In The Heart Of The Sea.

The film is a co-production between COTT Productions and Enelmar Productions, AIE for Warner Bros Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures.

The shoot wrapped at the end of 2013, with the project in post for a launch in 2015.

Howard so enjoyed working with Hemsworth on Rush that he has cast him in Heart Of The Sea as first mate Owen Chase. The cast also includes Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Riley and Jordi Molla.

Howard says the film has “action and adventure, but it’s also very much a character piece”.